OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: With tensions high and expectations low, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators kicked off their first substantive round of peace talks in nearly five years, huddling together at an undisclosed location Wednesday in search of an end to decades of conflict.
The meeting was cloaked in secrecy, an attempt by both sides to prevent leaks to the media and maintain trust. Officials would say only that the talks took place in Jerusalem, and there was no immediate comment from either side. The Israeli government released a brief video showing the chief negotiators shaking hands as the talks continued into the evening.
Ahead of the meeting, there already were signs of trouble. A new Israeli push to build thousands of new homes in Jewish settlements and fresh fighting in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip underscored the tough road ahead.
The talks came after months of mediation by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who has made six trips to the region since taking office early this year.
It is the third attempt since 2000 to agree on the terms of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Negotiations broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled, in large part because of Israeli settlement construction on occupied land claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.
The Palestinians see Israel’s continued construction of settlements as undermining hopes of dividing the land between two states, a view shared by the international community.
The Palestinians had demanded a halt in settlement construction and an Israeli pledge to accept its pre-1967 lines as the basis for a final border. To entice the Palestinians back to the table, Israel released 26 prisoners hours before the talks began, including many who had been convicted in deadly attacks on Israelis. They were the first of a total 104 long-serving prisoners that Israel is expected to release as negotiations progress over nine months.
But Israel’s announcements in recent days of plans to build more than 3,000 settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have fueled the Palestinian mistrust.